New Zealand v South Africa, Rugby Championship
Timing right for Dane Coles
September 12, 2013
Dane Coles hopes to settle in the middle of the front-row © Getty Images
Steve Hansen hopes to have ticked two important boxes by full-time in the Freedom Cup Test against South Africa at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday: victory, which will assume pole position on The Rugby Championship ladder; and confirmation that Dane Coles is the answer to the All Blacks' problems at hooker.
Coles is expected to be among the three All Blacks hookers at the tournament, and the Hurricanes rake is expected to show in just his third start in the black jersey, and his first Test against South Africa, why he should have sovereignty over the jumper shared by his mentors for more than a decade.
"He's someone we see as the future and we think now is the time to give him an opportunity to go against the best," Hansen said. "We're comfortable where he's at from a fitness point of view. He's back playing games and if he hadn't injured his calf earlier in the year he probably would have started more Tests. We just think the timing is right."
Hore has confirmed he is unlikely to return the Highlanders for the 2014 Super Rugby season, and reports suggest he will retire at the conclusion of The Rugby Championship in October, factors Hansen says altered his thinking around selections for the Freedom Cup Test.
"Whether [Hore] retires this year or next year, at some stage he's going to have to be replaced," Hansen said. "We've been planning for it for quite a while, but we haven't been prepared to put someone in the front-row that we don't think is ready - hence why we've held on to both him and Kevvie [Mealamu]."
Hore said in August that he could cope mentally with a third Rugby World Cup campaign, but he would need a sabbatical to ensure he was physically ready for the task. But recent discussions with Hansen may have changed that view.
"When you think about 2015, I don't see Hore being there and I don't think he sees himself there," Hansen said. "At some point we're going to have to make a change, but we need Coles to be ready when we make that change."
All Blacks selectors had hoped that Coles would be an experienced operator by now, having made his debut on the 2012 tour of Europe, but the calf injury he sustained in June denied him as many as six starts.
Coles' participation in The Rugby Championship has been limited to two appearances from the bench since he returned to rugby with Wellington Lions in the ITM Cup, including the win against Argentina in Hamilton.
"I just really want to prove to myself that I can play at international level, and what better chance than to play against the Boks," Coles said.
Cole's most immediate challenge in Auckland will be to stop his Springboks counterpart, Bismark du Plessis, who is a master over the ball at the breakdown, but he will achieve his most important marks at the set-piece - particularly at the lineout as South Africa have selected just one specialist lock.
"They're a really physical side and I'm marking a world-class hooker in Bismark. It's a big challenge but one that I'm excited about. I've always loved watching Bismark play for the Sharks and the Springboks. I can't wait for the challenge."
Follow live text commentary of the Test between New Zealand and South Africa on Saturday, September 14, from 5pm (AEST), 7pm (NZT), 9am (SAST), 7am (GMT)
All Blacks hope to answer hooker question